A bag of Indian diplomatic mail, which went down with an Air India (AI) aircraft 46 years ago in the French Alps, was on Tuesday put on display in the Ministry of External Affairs.
A tough khaki sack with Ministry of External Affairs stencilled in fading black, it yielded not diplomatic papers but Air India calendars and newspapers, including copies of The Hindu, then priced at just 13 paise. Dated January 21, 1966, The Hindu’s slightly shrivelled front page indicated that the previous day had been newsy — Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister designate, had said a new Cabinet would be sworn in on January 25 but declined to answer questions on the probable candidates.
The bag was in the cargo hold of an Air India flight, named Kanchenjunga, which crashed on Mont Blanc in the Swiss Alps while descending for a stopover at Geneva killing all the 117 aboard, including noted nuclear physicist and father of the Indian nuclear programme Homi Jahangir Bhabha and upcoming trade union leader Satish Loomba. Eerily another Air India plane, the Malabar Princess, had crashed on the same south-west face of Mont Blanc in 1950.
There has been virtually no trace of the Malabar Princess. But in the case of Kanchenjunga, there was a shoe, cables and a jute bag stamped ‘Diplomatic Mail’ and ‘Ministry of External Affairs’ “sitting as if someone had just placed it there,’’ said mountain rescue worker Arnaud Christmann and his neighbour Jules Berger who chanced upon the debris on August 21.
Glaciers and mountain faces pose forbidding challenges for human beings seeking to explore them. Nature in the form of snow drifts tends to cover the tracks only too well. If this bag took 46 years to recover, closer home it took 35 years before a salvage team reached the remains of sepoy Bali Ram who, along with his comrades at Garhwal Rifles, died when a Leh-bound Indian Air Force troop lifter crashed on the South Dhaka Glacier near Manali, Himachal Pradesh in 1968.